A study of couples with grown children discovered that parents who worried about them slept fewer hours and reported higher levels of stress.
It may come as no surprise that parents find it hard to sleep at night because they're wondering what their young kids or up to or how they're doing. However, a new study has revealed that even after their children grow up and leave home to start their own careers and make their way in the world, parents are still suffering from sleepless nights out of worry about what their kids are up to.
The study, published in The Gerontologist, was helmed by family gerontologist Amber J. Seidel, Ph.D., from Penn State York in Pennsylvania, and she revealed that there was a gender divide in the kind of stress parents feel.
Lead author Seidel told CBS News that there was still an immense need for research that focused on how families operate when children grow up and leave home. She emphasized the importance of studying the pivotal role that the family continues to play at later stages in life.
"I feel that many share this value, yet I think much of the socialization in our culture focuses on family when children are younger," Seidel said. "I seek to study topics that help us understand how family continues to be a central part of our lives throughout adulthood, and I encourage considering family-level influences in all situations."
The researchers surveyed 186 heterosexual married couples with at least two or three adult children on average. The average age of the men in the study was around 58 years, and the average age of the women surveyed was around 57 years.
The survey asked the parents to assign a rating on a scale of 1 to 8 to the degree of support they continued to provide to their adult children. 1 on the scale was the highest value indicating daily support, and 8 was the lowest value indicating support offered once a year. The kinds of support included in the survey encompassed practical aid, emotional support, advice, companionship, financial support, and discussing daily events.
The survey also had the participants assign a rating on a scale of 1 to 5 to the level of stress they felt when helping out their adult children as well as the extent to which they worried about them. 1 on the scale indicated "not at all" and 5 indicated "a great deal."
The parents were also asked to estimate the number of hours of sleep they managed to get each night, on average. The husbands surveyed slept around 6.69 hours every night on average, and their wives were actually worse off, reporting only around 6.66 hours of sleep on average every night.
The findings of the study were fascinating. The researchers discovered that fathers reported poorer sleep when they provided their adult children with support. On the other hand, the ones whose wives claimed responsibility for providing support to their grown children actually slept better than the other husbands in the study.
The mothers, surprisingly, did not report a similar impact on their sleeping patterns. When they felt stressed out over having to offer support, their sleep was disturbed, but their stress levels did not seem to have an impact on the number of hours their husbands slept.
The fathers were more affected by having to provide support, whereas the mothers were more affected by the stress they felt over the support.
Seidel explained that the findings reflected the degree of involvement parents have with their adult children's lives in the present era. She said, "Current research on young adults suggests that parents and children are maintaining high levels of involvement. Although parents and adult children have always maintained some level of involvement, we do see an increase in what is often termed 'helicopter parenting' and 'landing pad' children."
Additionally, the widespread use of cell phones and social media are offering parents more direct access to their grown children's lives, which gives them even more reasons to be worried about them, she revealed.
The concern is not about the cause of the worry, but the fact that experiencing these levels of stress cause parents to lose out on sleep, which then leads to a variety of issues with their health and their relationships. If parents learn to deal with the stress they feel in healthy ways, by watching their diet, exercising more, or even turning to mental health professionals or support groups for help, they will be better able to counteract the negative effects of the stress on the amount of sleep they get.
Seidel also recommends that parents reexamine the level of support they offer their children. She said, "It is important to remember that having stress present in our lives is not the problem. It’s the inability to cope in healthy ways with the stress that is problematic and may lead to immune suppression."
Furthermore, Seidel adds that parents are advised to take a step back if their constant provision of support is a way of controlling their children, or perhaps even if it enables their children to continue to rely on them instead of learning to be independent. She also examined the possibility that the study itself had shortcomings in that parents' lack of sleep was responsible for the stress the parents felt, instead of the stress causing lack of sleep as had been concluded.